REFUND THIS: Like about 2,025 other people, I wedged my soggy self into a seat at the Arlington Theatre last Friday night to see former secretary of state Colin Powell. He was there, ostensibly, to talk about leadership. I harbored some delusions that he might talk about some other things, too. Like how he’d been totally punked by the Bush White House. Or how he sold the War on Iraq to the United Nations Security Council under false pretenses by repeating some serious whoppers known at the time to be false — like that Saddam Hussein was pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Or how the Butcher of Baghdad was somehow responsible for carnage at the World Trade Center by supporting Al Qaeda. Tickets for the Powell show went for 50 bucks. I know that’s cheap compared to the old-fogy revival rock bands now clogging our local music venues, but to me, it seemed like a lot. Then I got lucky — somebody gave me a free ticket. But after listening to Powell for about 90 minutes, I was sure of one thing: I wanted my money back. It wasn’t so much what he didn’t say. It was more how he didn’t say it.
Let’s dispense with the niceties. The guy looked fabulous. Few men wear a suit so well. And as he noted, he’d been profiled by Time magazine as one of the five most gracefully aging men in America, sandwiched between the likes of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. You could see why. He was perfectly likeable, charming, and funny. He did a better-than-average impersonation of Ronald Reagan — whom he advised. And his running “Yes, dear” gags about his long-suffering wife was guaranteed to raise a chuckle. Likewise, the meat of Powell’s chat was as fluffy as a barn full of cotton candy. The world today is a better, safer, more democratic place than when he first put starch to his military collar 40 years ago. And America is a warm, generous nation even if some of us make fun of foreigners who put ketchup on their pizza.
But things threatened to get interesting when Powell finally got around to the question of leadership — the subject of his new book, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell. He explained that good leaders stand for something definite, they inspire the trust of their followers, and they exhibit moral courage. Given how Powell failed utterly on all three counts when he helped Bush win world approval for a war about which Powell himself had serious reservations, I wondered if this was rhetorical foreplay for the big mea culpa that was to come. After all, only Powell enjoyed the deep respect, admiration, and affection of the world community necessary to persuade the UN Security Council that the United States had no choice but to attack Iraq. It was Powell’s speech before the United Nations that secured the international approval the White House so desperately needed to wage what any fool knew was the wrong war at the wrong time against the wrong enemy. How did he do it? By telling fibs. He trotted out the old one about Saddam looking to buy a couple hundred tons of yellow cake from the impoverished West African nation of Niger. The charge was based on documents peddled to an Italian journalist and then disseminated to every intelligence agency in the Western world. Upon investigation, it was the opinion of all but a very few that the charge was a hoax: The documents were obvious forgeries incompetently rendered. (Besides, Iraq already had tons of yellow cake, but lacked the technical means to convert them into weapons-grade uranium. Acquiring more yellow cake would have added nothing to their war machine.) In addition, Powell warned the UN about Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and all but accused the Iraqi dictator of hosting Al Qaeda terrorists. Even excusing Powell for overstating the WMD threat, there was no credible intelligence supporting a link between Al Qaeda and Hussein. There was, however, considerable evidence contradicting this link — and disputing the yellow cake story — and it was available at the time, as former high-ranking Middle East CIA operative Paul Pillar wrote in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Pillar noted that intelligence operatives who provided information contrary to what the administration wanted to hear were accused of sabotaging the president. (Pillar also revealed that nobody in the administration ever sought the CIA’s assessment of Iraq — and the postwar challenges the U.S. might face — until one year after the invasion.)
Some of these issues were politely raised in a few of the written questions submitted to Powell after his talk. When asked what kind of leadership he exhibited, Powell did as all great leaders do: He blamed the help. He was given bad info by the head of the CIA and his No. 2 man. Then he blamed Hussein for “intending” to have weapons of mass destruction. Even more striking was the bland manner in which Powell dismissed the matter. You might have thought he was explaining how he returned some DVDs to the wrong video shop. You would never have guessed he was talking about a war that has claimed the lives of 2,274 American soldiers and left another 16,500 wounded. That’s in stark contrast to his second-in-command — and close personal friend — retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. In recent interviews, Wilkerson said, “I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community, and the United Nations Security Council. How do you think that makes me feel? Thirty-one years in the United States Army and I more or less end my career with that kind of blot on my record?” To my knowledge Wilkerson is not selling any books. I doubt he’ll be selling out the Arlington Theatre any time soon. But should he come, I’d be happy to pay the price of admission. In the meantime: General Powell, I want a refund.